How Do We Transform Our Justice System?

“We’re working for the day when a policeman, an official, a representative of law and order is not perceived as the enemy — as the source of danger and symbol of oppression. We have to alter — most basically - the perceptions of both children and adults. But we cannot alter perceptions unless we alter people’s experiences.”
Sargent Shriver |Detroit, MI| August 3, 1966

Our Quote of the Week reminds us that too many of us experience representatives across the justice system -- police, attorneys, judges, political figures -- not as protectors and upholders of justice, but as a “source of danger and symbol of oppression.”

Speaking about the Legal Services program to the Illinois State Bar Association in 1966, Sargent Shriver outlined why achieving justice for all must be at the heart of any effort to address poverty. He emphasized that economic opportunity, which is what the programs of the War on Poverty were designed to expand, must include “full recourse to the law.”

In the speech, Shriver recognizes the need for communities who have not had adequate representation in the justice system, to have access to legal services:

"[T]hese able and dedicated members of our profession — this new breed of lawyers has volunteered to sacrifice the assured security of traditional career lines, to forsake the well-trod path that leads step by step from law clerk to senior partner — and instead, to venture forth into the ghettoes, the rural pockets of poverty, the Indian reservations and migrant worker camps. The volunteers are manning the outposts of our society, establishing the rule of law in lawless territory.”

From the point of view of 2022, some of Shriver’s language is outdated, but his message is clear: the communities deprived of justice are overwhelmingly poor, and include Black and Indigenous peoples as well immigrants.

Although he gave this address over 55 years ago, Shriver’s words speak to the same issues we’re dealing with today, from police brutality to excessive punishment, mass incarceration, and general lack of adequate representation within the legal system. Too many people do not feel protected by law enforcement and by the courts -- and there is overwhelming evidence that there is good reason for them to feel this way. Today, organizations such as the Equal Justice Initiative, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Center for American Progress, The Justice Gap, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and our friends at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law all work on the multitude of issues related to injustice in our systems; we invite you to follow their work in addressing this vitally important issue. And, of course, the Legal Services Corporation continues the legacy that Sargent Shriver began when he included Legal Services for the Poor as part of the War on Poverty.

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Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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